For Migrant Children, Out of Fields and Into Head Start

By Christine Armario — October 06, 2009 8 min read
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Elizabeth Pineda climbs out from bed, her 4-year-old son, Adrian, asleep nearby. She lays out a tiny pair of shorts and a white T-shirt for his first day of school, gathers her purse, and tiptoes outside. Her cousin will get the boy up and off to class in a few hours.

It is 4 a.m. and only a few solitary street lamps light the darkened roads in Ocala, Fla., a rural community in the central part of the state. Ms. Pineda, the 20-year-old daughter of migrant farmworkers, climbs into an old white van and heads to the peanut fields.

It’s a story repeated in migrant families across the United States: a chain of labor that stretches from one generation to the next. As a little girl, Ms. Pineda helped pick oranges from the lowest branches as her father worked from a ladder overhead. As a single mother, she has sometimes had to bring Adrian along—letting him play with toy cars in the van while she picked peanuts nearby.

Private child care is too expensive for most of these families, and the alternatives are limited.

The government offers a Head Start program for the children of migrant and seasonal laborers. But it serves only a fraction of those eligible, according to estimates by providers and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Waiting lists stretch hundreds of children long in parts of the country.

Those who can’t get in go to friends’ care, or to state-run prekindergartens or to the fields, where they are exposed to heat, insects, chemicals, and heavy machinery and where, each year, some children are hurt or even killed.

Long Waiting Lists

In the farming town of Ocala, two Head Start centers have opened in the past year. And with a $26 million boost for Early Head Start in federal stimulus funds and a separate $10 million expansion, nonprofit organizations around the country are hoping to expand enrollment of migrant infants and toddlers by thousands more.

The goal: Besides providing a safe haven, the programs offer access to basic social services, help teach English, and aim to set children on a path toward parity with their peers in kindergarten.

Ms. Pineda has enrolled Adrian. Her dream is that he never has to do what she does.

How many young children follow their parents into America’s fields isn’t known.

Care providers estimate that just under one-fifth of children eligible for Migrant and Seasonal Head Start are enrolled—about 35,000 in 2007, according to the most current national figures.

Yvette Sanchez-Fuentes, the executive director of the National Migrant and Seasonal Head Start Association, in Washington, said she accepted the estimate “just because of the amount of wait lists that they have across the country.”

In South Texas, 400 children are on the waiting list of the largest provider of migrant Head Start services. During the peak season in Michigan, the waiting list sometimes exceeds 200 children, many of them vulnerable infants and toddlers, officials said.

Parents have become better educated about the dangers of the fields, Ms. Sanchez-Fuentes said, but still there are tragedies.

In Newport, Tenn., Arnulfo Hernandez and his wife, Esmeralda, took their 11-month-old son, Jesse, with them to the tomato fields in 2007. Other migrant families had encouraged them to enroll him in a Head Start program, but the young parents, then just 22 and 20, were reluctant to do so.

The couple put Jesse in the back of their van, rolled down the windows and left the back door up, according to a report filed by the Cocke County sheriff’s office. They tied a thin string used to keep tomato plants upright from a seat in the car to a belt loop on Jesse’s pants to keep him from wandering away, Chief Detective Robert Caldwell said.

Esmeralda Hernandez told detectives she checked on her son every five minutes. But at one point, the couple found Jesse unresponsive. He’d gotten his neck tangled in the string and strangled, Mr. Caldwell said.

In Polk City, Fla., 2-year-old Ruben Velasquez crawled out of a truck as his family picked oranges in 2006. He was between the vehicle and a flatbed trailer when his 10-year-old brother moved the truck forward, crushing him.

“Every so often, you do hear horror stories,” said Lourdes Villanueva, the director of farmworker advocacy with the Redlands Christian Migrant Association. “But the potential for that hapening is all the time.”

The path Ms. Pineda drives to the fields is long and jolting. She picks up around a dozen workers, the youngest just 13. They are tired and silent. Several are barefoot.

Growing up, Ms. Pineda went to eight different schools, depending on where her parents were traveling to work. They mostly stayed in Florida, but also went to South Carolina, where her father worked in the tobacco fields.

She managed to earn A’s and B’s in school. Then, at 16, she got pregnant.

After graduating from high school, she went to work in the fields. She has held other jobs—gas-station attendant, restaurant hostess—but says she couldn’t get enough hours.

Now, with the recession, she says there is no other work to be found around Ocala, about 95 miles north of Tampa. And so she harvests peanuts, an especially labor-intensive crop, with low-growing plants that offer no shelter from the sun. The first few days of the season, Ms. Pineda says, her muscles ache so much she can hardly sit and stand when she gets home.

The fields are no place for a child, she believes, and yet when she couldn’t find someone to care for her son, she often took him with her. A Migrant and Seasonal Head Start program opened up nearby when he was 3, but Ms. Pineda says there wasn’t space for him. This year, a second center opened up in Ocala, and Adrian got in.

“Hopefully, he never has to go to the fields and pick,” Ms. Pineda says.

A Link to Services

Research on early learning has shown the importance of building basic cognitive and social skills from an early age.

Children from low-income families know about 3,000 words by age 6, while those from high-income backgrounds know 20,000, a 1995 study estimated. Children from privileged families hear millions more words by age 3 than those from less affluent backgrounds, according to a 2003 study.

Migrant children in particular are a vulnerable population, as they often attend more than one school each year, and sometimes in different states, meaning academic requirements vary.

“These children do not have a typical home,” Ms. Villanueva said. “Many times, there’s two or three families living together in one trailer, so there’s no room for a bookshelf, for example.”

They may also feel pressure to help contribute to the family income and work in the fields. In some states, farmers can employ children as young as 10 or 12 outside school hours.

When the Head Start centers open they are sometimes the children’s first link to social services. Ms. Villanueva, who is based in central Florida, recalls seeing children who had suffered so many untreated ear infections that scar tissue had left them with hearing loss. Other young children had teeth that needed to be extracted.

The immigration debate inevitably trickles into any attempt to provide services.

In Bybee, Tenn., about 70 miles southeast of Nashville, a 72-year-old farmer decided to lease land for a migrant Head Start day-care program in 1999 to give his workers’ children a place to go.

His neighbors responded with an angry march, threatening letters, and harassing phone calls. Then his hay barn was set on fire, in what investigators said was an act of arson and possible hate crime. No arrests have been made in the case.

“I never bothered nobody—I just wanted to help them kids,” James Ellison said at the time.

Today there are more than 450 centers in 40 states, and funding has been increasing in recent years. About $288 million was allocated for the program in the 2007 fiscal year. This year, stimulus money from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act could increase enrollment by as many as 8,000 infants and toddlers, Ms. Sanchez-Fuentes said.

Many of the students are U.S. citizens, she added, “kids that are going to go into our public schools and then hopefully into our universities.”

Growers mainly support migrant Head Start initiatives.

“As a general rule, farm employers would prefer not to have young children around the field,” said Ron Gaskill, the senior director of congressional relations for labor and environment for the American Farm Bureau.

At Work Before Dawn

Ms. Pineda’s van comes to a stop in the middle of a dark field. The headlights of a few cars shine onto patches of green peanut plants. In the distance, small circles of light bob up and down like fireflies. They are the headlamps of workers already digging for peanuts.

Ms. Pineda’s group steps out into the sand. The scent of peanuts fills the air. The sky is freckled with stars. Seventeen-year-old Omar Bautista, shoeless but with socks to protect his feet from ants, has duct tape strapped around each of his fingers and the palm of his hand. The leaves and the peanuts aren’t sharp themselves, but pulling them like a rope can burn your skin.

“I was born with a peanut plant in my hand,” he says with a laugh.

Mr. Bautista’s 13-year-old brother lies asleep still in the truck. They are both due to start school in a week.

In the darkness, Ms. Pineda is thinking about classes.

Today is her son’s first day. She herself has started night school once a week and is taking two online courses, aiming to finish college and become a massage therapist or maybe a teacher.

Today she will earn $2.50 for each bucket of peanuts she can fill. She hopes to fill at least 10.

Ms. Pineda leans against the front of her van as workers start divvying up the buckets. She waits for the sun to rise.

A version of this article appeared in the October 07, 2009 edition of Education Week as For Migrant Children, Out of Fields and Into Head Start


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